A brave little girl saved the life of her baby brother – on his first birthday.
Carey Austin was diagnosed with a rare type of blood cancer when he was just eight months old.
His only hope of survival was a stem-cell transplant.
Against all odds, his sister Aubrey, four, was a perfect match.
Surgeons operated on Carey’s first birthday and six months later he is cancer-free thanks to his big sister.
Their mum Naomi said: “She absolutely adores Carey and when we explained to her about the transplant she wanted to do everything she could to save him.
“She’s only four years old, yet she was only thinking of how she could help him. We felt so guilty putting her through an operation too, but it was Carey’s only chance of survival.
“She was so brave about it. She knew that her blood was going to save him.”
During a two-hour procedure at Great Ormond Street Hospital, London, surgeons took out Aubrey’s stem cells and they were put into Carey’s body via a drip.
Naomi said: “The fact that the transplant took place on Carey’s birthday was so significant – that she was giving him a second chance at life on that special day.
“The doctors and nurses said they had never seen anyone have a stem cell transplant on their birthday before.
“Aubrey was very groggy and woozy when she came around from the operation, and she had puncture wounds on her back from where the stem cells had been taken out.
“But she was still smiling through it all. She was so brave. She never complained about being in pain and she was just pleased to see how her little brother was afterwards.”
When the brother and sister saw each other for the first time after the operation, there was not a dry eye in the room.
Naomi said: “It was so sweet when they were reunited.
“We took Aubrey to see Carey and she gave him a cuddle. They were thrilled to see each other again.”
After a two-day hospital stay for Aubrey and seven weeks for Carey, the family were able to settle back into life back home in Brighton, East Sussex.
Carey is now in remission, with no signs of the cancer cells in his body.
But his parents have been warned that the disease is so aggressive that until March next year there is a 40% chance of it returning. After that, the likelihood falls to just 5%.
Naomi added: “Two other children lost their lives on the cancer ward while we were there, so we know how lucky Carey has been.
“He and Aubrey have always been close but now their bond is stronger than ever.
“She’s a superstar and he couldn’t have wanted anything more from a big sister. He’s doing so well now. He loves playing with his cars and he’s just learning to walk too.
“Aubrey is with him all the time – she just adores him. She knows that she has saved his life and she loves being a big sister to him. They play cars together and he’s learning to walk, so she stands with him encouraging him to take his steps.”
Carey fell ill last November but Naomi, a paediatric audiologist, and her husband Simon, a CPS lawyer, both 43, thought it was bronchitis because his sister had recently had the same thing.
A GP agreed but two days later he was rushed to hospital by ambulance with breathing difficulties.
Doctors at Great Ormond Street diagnosed juvenile myelomonocytic leukaemia, or JMML, which cannot be treated with chemotherapy. There are only 1.2 cases per million children in the UK each year.
Naomi said: “I was hysterical. I kept trying to tell them that it wasn’t cancer, it was bronchilitis. I couldn’t accept what was happening.
Because parents are not suitable donors, Aubrey’s bone marrow was tested, a process that involves drawing a sample out using a needle.
Naomi said: “There is only a 25% chance of any sibling being a match, so even with Aubrey we knew that the odds weren’t in our favour.
“If she hadn’t been a match then we would have had to wait until doctors found an anonymous donor, but that may not have happened in time for Carey.
“When the results came back to say that she was a perfect match for him, we couldn’t believe it. We had been praying that she would save him, so to get the news that she was a match for him was just incredible.
“When we heard I couldn’t stop crying, it was so emotional. To think that Carey was going to have a chance of survival thanks to his big sister was the answer to our prayers.”
The mum added: “We did feel guilty about putting her through the procedure, but when we spoke to her about it, all she wanted to do was help. We were so proud of her.”
The transplant was made even more special as it took place on March 15, which was Carey’s first birthday, giving the family a double celebration.
They are keen to raise awareness of the cancer symptoms and the charity Children’s Cancer Leukaemia Group, which has helped them throughout their ordeal.
Naomi said: “Having a child with cancer is one of the worst things that can happen to you. We didn’t realise that it was leukaemia so we are thankful that it was spotted in time.
“We received amazing support throughout from the hospital and from the CCLG.
“We feel so lucky that Carey has come through it and it feels like a miracle to have him with us now.’
Geoff Shenton, a children’s cancer specialist at Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation, said: “In a very small proportion of cases JMML can disappear on its own, but
this is rare.
“Most children will need a bone-marrow or stem-cell transplant. There is still a significant chance that the disease can relapse. There may be a possibility of a second transplant if this happens, but despite our best efforts, children still die from JMML.”